Because Biden has said a few unfortunate things lately — asserting that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids” and Democrats “choose truth over facts,” or mangling his closing statement in the most recent debate — we’ve reached a kind of critical mass where news media are covering not just individual Biden gaffes but also gaffes as a whole character issue. “Biden’s gaffes fuel questions about his potency against Trump,” says the Wall Street Journal. “Biden mangles his words — and undercuts his message,” says Politico. Others phrase it in the form of a question: “Do Biden’s gaffes make him unelectable?” asks the Hill.
All gaffe coverage is questionable, but in Biden’s case it’s particularly bad, and not only because so many of Biden’s gaffes are mere slips of the tongue (though he commits the other kind of gaffe as well, when you intentionally say something that people take issue with, like noting your past ability to work on legislation with segregationists). When Mitt Romney was caught on tape in 2012 saying that 47 percent of Americans were dependent on government and “I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” you could say he was offering some insight about the decisions he’d make as president. What is the latest Biden gaffe supposed to tell us about what sort of president he’d be? Nothing.
But now that this frame around Biden’s candidacy is in place, even the most inconsequential of mistakes, like saying he met with Parkland students when he was vice president (he did meet with them, but it was after he left office) prompt entire news stories, like this one and this one and this one and this one.
I would challenge anyone to try to explain how the number of gaffes a candidate utters actually tells us something meaningful about his or her prospective presidency. The argument that some number of gaffes suggests cognitive problems that could affect Biden’s performance doesn’t hold water. There are legitimate questions about whether someone Biden’s age — he’ll be 78 at the start of the next presidential term — can handle the rigors of the presidency. But Biden made these kinds of embarrassing statements in his 60s and his 50s, and even his 40s. It’s not a product of age; it’s just who he is.
Besides, we make demands of politicians that no ordinary person would be able to satisfy. I can promise you that if I hired a team of people to follow you around for a week (let alone a year) recording every word that came out of your mouth, there would be some things you’d want to take back.
When a theme like “Joe Biden, gaffe machine” gets locked in, it becomes a frame through which the media view the events of the campaign, leading to profoundly different standards by which each candidate is judged. In its most twisted form, you get something like the 2000 election, in which reporters decided that Al Gore was a liar and George W. Bush was dumb, the consequence of which was that Bush could lie without reporters taking any particular notice even as they pored over every word that left Gore’s mouth to see if under some interpretation it strayed from perfect factual accuracy.
As a similar kind of frame takes hold in this election, other candidates will be allowed to say something unintentionally offensive, garble a URL or otherwise misspeak, with only mild punishment. But when Biden does it, the alarms will go off, and the keyboards will begin clacking.
The cynical expectation is that whether it’s right or not, the gaffe coverage will probably continue: Biden will keep saying cringe-worthy things, and the news media will continue to treat them as newsworthy. And much of Biden’s appeal to Democratic voters is about “electability,” its own bit of campaign pathology that no one should waste time on.
You might argue that Biden’s propensity for gaffes means he’ll receive harsher coverage than some other candidates and that could be a reason for primary voters not to support him, but there’s no particular reason to think that’s true. Had I told you in 2015 that a year later the news media would treat Hillary Clinton’s email management practices as though they were the most critical issue that had faced the United States in decades, you would have said, “They can’t possibly be that stupid.” But they were. If it’s not gaffes, it’ll be something else, and any candidate can be run through that wringer for one reason or another.
There are plenty of substantive things to criticize Biden for, and I’ve done so at some length. I think his policy ambitions are too modest, and he has a naive faith that when Trump is gone, he’ll be able to persuade Republicans in Congress to join with him to pass legislation they find abhorrent. Those criticisms, however, are about the kinds of decisions he’d make in the Oval Office and his chances of building a successful presidency. In other words, they matter. The frequency of his gaffes just doesn’t, and no one should pretend otherwise.